Czech Billionaire Feuds With Premier Before Cabinet Entry

Tensions inside the future Czech ruling coalition flared days before taking power as the premier and the billionaire set to become his finance minister quarreled over ministry posts.

Bohuslav Sobotka, appointed prime minister last week, rebuked Finance Minister designate Andrej Babis, who refused to accept a nominee from Sobotka’s Social Democrats as his deputy. Sobotka said the three coalition parties had earlier agreed to maintain the practice used by previous governments.

“It’s a bit schizophrenic,” Sobotka told a televised news conference today. “We clearly agreed that the parties that don’t get a nominee for a minister will be able to propose their experts as deputies.”

The coalition of Sobotka’s Social Democrats, Babis’s ANO party and the Christian Democrats needs to overcome differences over how to finance increased spending on welfare and infrastructure as it aims to reignite economic growth. Sobotka plans to reverse a three-year austerity drive that helped cut borrowing costs to the lowest in emerging Europe while worsening a six-quarter recession. The cabinet is to be appointed on Jan. 29.

Babis doesn’t want political nominees at the Finance Ministry and “needs people to do work” and not pass on information to the Social Democrats, Pravo newspaper cited him today as saying in an interview.

The tycoon, whose fortune is estimated by Forbes at $2 billion, is against Sobotka’s proposals to raise the corporate tax burden, possibly via special levies on selected businesses. Instead, he is seeking to find savings on state operations.

Starting with capital of $5,000, the Czech Republic’s second-richest person built his Agrofert into an $11-billion business in two decades, with assets ranging from fertilizer makers to food producers to forestry.

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